Robert Silverberg | from:English

Tales From the Venia Woods

Ruti de Vries | Warrior #8, 2017. Digital painting

This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us.  We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I.  My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.

It was a very quiet life.  The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village.  Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home.  Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live.  But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.

I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world.  Its splendors stunned me and dazed me.  We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth.  For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.

There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic.  My father was very agitated when the news of his death came.  “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over.  I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.”  I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional.  So I had a second visit to the capital that year.

Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul.  This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course.  You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair.  We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus!  Long live the Consul!”

(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch.  I was very surprised at that.  My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders.  He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one.  The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch.  I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium.  It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier.  To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor.  But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time.  Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)

Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere.  I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school.  Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious.  And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.

 

***

 

There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building.  “I’ve seen it myself,” he said.  “The ghost, I mean.  He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”

I didn’t believe him.  I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost.   Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it.  For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much.  My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living.  For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.

But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there.  Everyone in the village knew that.  It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together.  Hardly anyone ever went there.  The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.

It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that.  My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort.  Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her.  My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be?  I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.

But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone.  This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure.  The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by.  You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves.  I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest.  So I took my sister along.

I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted.  Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging.  What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found. 

Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god.  (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors.  This made my grandmother angry, naturally.  “But we are Romans,” she would say.  “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)

It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going.  The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often.  We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there.  (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)

Then we got into deeper, darker territory.  The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here.   Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves.  I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak.  I hadn’t mentioned it to her.  So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.

Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness.  The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor.  But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here.  We’d been hiking for hours, now.  I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back. 

It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides.  I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her.  And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.

“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.

“There,” said Friya.  “Look.”

I followed her pointing hand.  At first all I saw was more forest.  But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge.  Yes!  Yes, it was!  I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.

So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house.  In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.

And then I saw the ghost.

He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls.  His clothing hung in rags.  He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast.  I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.

For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified.  Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.

“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured.  “There really is a ghost here!”

Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her.  But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly.  He’s nothing but a scared old man.”  And went to him unhesitatingly.

 

              ***

 

Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times.  The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds.  Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though.  There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.

He was terrified of us.  “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking.  Latin was what he spoke.  “Are you here to arrest me?  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I’m not any kind of a danger.  I’m only the caretaker.”  His lips quavered.  “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.

“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him.  “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”

“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.

We laid him out on a couch.  There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow.  He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much.  We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food.  Then he closed his eyes without a word.  I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off.  We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.

“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken.  Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings.  No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here.  In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more.  I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger.  Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was.  Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another.  And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.

When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened.  Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.

“From the village, are you?  How old are you?  What are your names?”

“This is Friya,” I said.  “I’m Tyr.  She’s nine and I’m twelve.”     

“Friya.  Tyr.”  He laughed.  “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh?  But times have changed.”  There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant.  He gave us a confidential, intimate smile.  “Do you know whose place this was, you two?  The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who!  This was his hunting lodge.  Caesar himself!  He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”

He began to cough and sputter.  Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.

“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir.  You don’t have the strength.”

“You’re right.  You’re right.”  He patted her hand.  His was like a skeleton’s.  “How long ago it all was.  But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ”  A look of torment, of sorrow.  “There isn’t any Caesar, is there?  First Consul!  Hail!  Hail Junius Scaevola!”  His voice cracked as he raised it.

“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him.  “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”

“Dead?  Scaevola?  Is it so?”  He shrugged.  “I hear so little news.  I’m only the caretaker, you know.  I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “

 

***

 

But of course he wasn’t the caretaker.  Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall.  You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags.  But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes.  It was the royal face, all right.  I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things.  The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself.  Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.

He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit.  He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.

But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.

For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said.  “It’s thousands of years old.  You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you?  You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?”  And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.

That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges.  I looked at them, mystified.  “From Nova Roma,” he explained.  “Where the redskinned people live.  The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are.  He went there almost every year to hunt.  Do you see the trophies?”  And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.

We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer.  He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead.  “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us.  Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging.  In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother.  It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it.  But he was grateful.  Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt.  He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me.  I wondered about that.  If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood.  But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.

Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home.  “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr?  Or the Emperor himself?”

“What?”

“He’s got to be one or the other.  It’s the same face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”

“The big portrait on the wall, silly.  Of the Emperor.  Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”

I thought she was out of her mind.  But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.

What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day.  “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said.  “But you can have these.  You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand.  As relics of history.”  His voice was bitter.  From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver.  “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said.  They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man.  “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”

“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.

Indeed he did.  Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker.  I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him.  He began to tremble.  I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again.  “No,” he said faintly.  “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ”  And his shoulders shook and he began to cry.  Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little.  He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back.  “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked.  And his tale came pouring out of him.

A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur.  He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius.  He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.

Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power.  We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny.  To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.

Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths.  Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week.  Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi.  Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.

Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained.  But in the confusion he was overlooked.  He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne.  Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.

“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us.  “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of.  The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead.  The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.

After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”

“And when did you come here?” I asked.

“Almost twenty years ago.  Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I

could live here undisturbed.  And so I have.  And so I will, for however much time is left.”  He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass.  He drank it in a single gulp.  “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost!  What madness it was, to destroy the Empire!  What greatness existed then!”

“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.

I kicked her ankle.  She gave me a sour look.

Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village.  We were trained to see the entire world in a glance.  The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire.  Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all?  Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul?  Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long.  Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form.  But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last?  If one man can take power, so can another, or another.  There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words.  Or fifty.  And every province will want to be an Empire in itself.  Mark my words, children.  Mark my words.”

I had never heard such treason in my life.  Or anything so wrongheaded.

The Pax Romana?  What Pax Romana?  Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries.  But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification?  And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica?  No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force.  The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic.  So my father had taught me.

But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood.  Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these.  I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty.  And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.

When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said.  “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure.  All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered.  When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them?  But I want you to have these.  Because you’ve been so kind to me.  To remember me by.  And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”

For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire.  For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus.  And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.

The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day.  We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it.  She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.

“Where did you get this thing?  Where?”

I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much.  But as usual she was ahead of me.

“We found it, grandmother.  We dug it up.”

“You dug it up?”

“In the forest,” I put in.  “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around.  There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “

She turned it over and over in her hands.  I had never seen her look so troubled.  “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno!  I want you to swear to me before the Goddess.  And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”

Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.

Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother.  I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “

I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too.  It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.

She held the figurine out, its base toward me.  “Do you see these marks here?  This little crest stamped down here?  It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr.  That’s the mark of Caesar.  This carving once belonged to the Emperor.  Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest?  Come, both of you!  To the altar, and swear!”

“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly.  “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”

“Of course not, child.  Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”

“The haunted house in the woods,” she said.  And I nodded my confirmation.  What could I do?  She would have taken us to the altar to swear.

 

***          

 

Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was.  The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.

Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense.  And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother.  He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended.  And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors.  But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble.  We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic.  Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.

We were children.  We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.

Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting.  Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions.  Then things returned to normal.  My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.

That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar.  Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was.  I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself.  A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars.  But, as I say, we were children then.  We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism.  Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.

“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later.  “Stay away from it.  Do you hear me?  Stay away.”

And so we would have, because it was plainly an order.  We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.

But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house.  Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle.  “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say.  “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”

“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked.  “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”

“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said.  “Rifles don’t have ghosts.  It’s a real rifle.  And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”

I repeated all this to Friya.

“What should we do?” I asked her.

“Go out there and warn him.  They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”

“But father said – “

“Even so.  The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide.  Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”

There was no arguing with her.  Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself.  That left me with no choice.  I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.

“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge.  “I can tell.”

Friya always had a strange way of knowing things.  I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.

We crept forward warily.  There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced.  Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other.  I took a deep breath.

“You wait here,” I said, and went in.

It was frightful in there.  The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments.  Someone had slashed every painting to shreds.  The collection of arms and armor was gone.

I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius.  He wasn’t there.  But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.

Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.

“We’re too late,” I told her.

 

***

 

It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course.  They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job.  I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had.  So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall.  I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.

Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down.  I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line.  During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”

“A long time ago, yes.”

I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.

Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it.  And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”

He seemed taken off guard by that.  He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled.  “So you heard about that, did you?”

“I wondered if there was any truth to it.  That he was a Caesar, I mean.”

Lucentius glanced away.  “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone.  “An old lying tramp.  Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.”  He gave me a peculiar look.  And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.

A filthy old tramp, yes.  But not, I think, a liar.

He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire.  And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying.  Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them.  But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.

For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume.  These matters are not so simple.  The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt.  The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil.  What if there had been no Roma?  What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build?  Imagine the madness of it!  But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage.  Or so I think now.

In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it.  I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus.  Now and then I take it out and look at it.  It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight.  My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago.  Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade.  For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire.  As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.

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